10 Things I Learnt in Government … not without pain

Anthony Finkelstein

This is a beguilingly simple list of ten things necessary to understand in order to get things done in government. It’s the best list of its kind I have ever seen, with a great deal of insight captured in remarkably few words.

It is, more particularly, a way into understanding how the policy and ministerial end of government works, with insights which are not only valuable for people coming into that world, but also, I suspect, are useful reminders for those familiar with it.

Unintentionally, it also provides an answer to common cries of despair from people whose work brings them close to but not quite into that world. Recognising these ten points will not be (and perhaps should not be) a cure for that frustration, but has the potential to navigate more effectively within the world they describe.

Government Digital Service: Our strategy for 2021-2024

Tom Read

Strategies always intend to say something about the future. They rarely intend to say much about the past, but almost invariably say more than they first appear to.

There are of course debates to be had about whether this is the right strategy for GDS to have for the next three years and about whether GDS is well positioned to deliver that strategy even if the strategy itself is the right one. But here it is worth reflecting on a slightly different question.

We now have a quarter of a century of experience of digital government. This strategy builds on foundations which are deep, if not always entirely solid. Or perhaps it is better to think of its being built on archaeological strata, history which shapes and informs the present, even if much of that history has been lost and forgotten.

From that perspective, one of the things which is most striking is how stable the strategy has been over decades. The five missions GDS has set itself for the next three years would have been recognised – and enthusiastically endorsed – by their predecessors of twenty years ago. That holds true to quite a surprising level of detail. Joined up ‘whole services’, such as having a baby or preparing to retire, are an aspiration for the future – just as having a baby and pensions and retirement were two one of the first ‘life episodes’ built for UK Online at the turn of the millennium.

That prompts two thoughts. One is to repeat some words I wrote as gov.uk was first being turned on. Another decade later, they still ring true:

The innovation of gov.uk does not lie in the concepts it embodies. What is striking is not how new those are, but how little different from the ambitions of a decade ago.

The second is to ask whether that tells us anything interesting. The point here is not to wallow in nostalgia or suggest that the past was a better place. It wasn’t – not in this respect, at least. Instead, it’s an opportunity to think over a longer timescale than we usually do, a kind of long now of digital government. And from that perspective, being agile suddenly looks fractal. That whole twenty year view can be seen as a single set of iterations, a minimum viable product becoming less minimal and more viable each time round – as ever, it’s not iterative if you only do it once.

That recognition should, perhaps, makes us both more ambitious and more humble. If it it is going to have taken us the best part of 25 years to create an effective, joined-up having a baby service, that is surely many years too long. Ten years from now, five years from now, there should be a more distinctive strategy because the current (and long standing) ambition should have been achieved. But since it has taken so long, it becomes the more important to be highly aware of the systemic constraints and enablers of change. There have been times in its past when GDS’s self-belief has outstripped its ability to operate in a complex and conservative system. It has to understand its environment if it is to maximise its effectiveness in changing it.

It is a pleasing curiosity that we got the strategy right a long time ago, but it matters more that the conditions of success for its implementation were far weaker then than they are now. The strategy is not delivery, but delivery is the test of strategy that matters. The strategic challenge for GDS is to make its strategy redundant.

The Inspector’s Dilemma

Martin Stanley

Public bodies do many things, not all of them necessarily at the front of mind when we think about what governments do and how those things might be done better. One of those things is, broadly, inspection – checking to see that requirement which should be met are being met (and sometimes to see whether failures reflect inadequate requirements or poor compliance). The existence of regulation and inspection raise an important question about the attribution of responsibility: does the very existence of a regulatory system shift responsibility inappropriately, does it in effect create a form of moral hazard? And if the answer turns out in practice to be to fudge the issue, the consequences may turn out to be very bad.

What Dominic Cummings got right

Aris Roussinos

Most of what appears in Strategic Reading is chosen because it makes an interesting argument well.  Just occasionally something makes it in because while the argument may be interesting, it is not persuasively made. Perhaps the publisher of this piece had some doubts too – the original title, preserved in the URL, was ‘Cummings was right about our government’s failings’, softened to its current version a few hours later.

Dominic Cummings’ contempt for the machinery of UK government is well known. That that machinery has serious weaknesses is unarguable, but whether either his diagnosis or his prescription serve to address those weaknesses is quite another matter. This account of his thinking boldly asserts that “Notwithstanding what he failed to get done while in government, his analysis of it should be taken seriously.” But his failure to get anything much done in government unavoidably brings into question whether his analysis should be taken at all seriously.

The core argument, borrowed from Cummings himself, but repeated and amplified here is based on a sleight of hand. The diagnosis is at a grand scale – it is the state capacity of liberal democracies, their systems of governance and their political institutions which are not up to the challenge of addressing crises, tested against the slightly unlikely standard set by the Chinese Communist Party. But the solution is a much narrower one: “drastic reform of the state bureaucracy, perhaps on a decentralised model that severs the dead hand of Whitehall.” The problem with that is not that the civil services has already reached a state of perfection – it is very far from that. It is that the civil service, big and complex as it is, is only part of a much wider system, which Cummings and his apologists seem determined to ignore.

There is indeed a crisis of governance in the UK. If we address that crisis, we may end up with a better civil service. But if we try to fix the civil service, there is no chance that that will solve the crisis of governance.

The path from crisis

Matthew Taylor – RSA

A matrix to help distinguish between one-off crisis actions and interventions that have longer-term potential, and between innovations resulting from new activities and those enabled by putting a hold on business and bureaucracy as usual.It is easy, but not in the end very productive, to worry about how we got into a crisis and to pin the blame as we choose. It is harder, and very much more productive, to look at what the crisis has forced us to do and to ask how we can discard that which was of only short term utility while keeping and developing that which shows promise of longer term value.

This post provides a really useful framework not just for thinking about the difference between what we have needed to do in the crisis and what we may be able to do beyond it – neatly summarised in the matrix. But it goes beyond that to reflect on what is capable of making potentially radical change more robustly sustainable. The answers to that come not just in institutional change and adaptation, important though those opportunities are, but also from an approach to public engagement and participation which has the potential to provide the foundations necessary for better decision making more generally.

Could the crisis be a turning point, rekindling our belief in progress? It has reminded us that it is not hope that leads to action as much as action that leads to hope. It has underlined our common humanity while encouraging us to empathise with our less protected and advantaged fellow citizens. It has, I sense, made us intolerant of the unreason and cynicism that underlies so much populist rhetoric. […]

The crisis is forcing us to think differently and to act differently. Perhaps the most profound shift would be if we were ready for a different kind of leadership.

How should government manage big risks – pandemics to financial shocks?

Geoff Mulgan

Another Geoff Mulgan post, but a very different one from his reflections on the imaginary crisis, which spanned continents, philosophies and centuries. This one is a rigorously pragmatic account of how governments should manage risk effectively, using the UK as a case study and drawing on Geoff’s own experience of working in government.

There is much to reflect on in the post, but one of the points which comes through very clearly is the need to accept apparent short-term inefficiency, in the form of many kinds of excess capacity, in order to maximise overall long-term efficiency and effectiveness. There is of course an important debate to be had about how much of what kinds of capacity is worth paying for, but if that debate takes place in a political environment in which short-term cost efficiency is valued above all else, it is not likely to end in the optimal place.

Governments can’t avoid being the insurer of last resort for high impact risks. It matter to all of us that the premiums are kept paid up.

Preparing for risks is costly. It takes people and resources away from immediate priorities. But ultimately protecting people from risk is the heart of what government is for, and good bureaucracy manages risk systematically. Indeed, times like this remind us why boring, competent, reliable and forward-looking bureaucracy is so vital to helping us live our lives freely.  They worry so that we don’t have to.

Introducing a ‘Government as a System’ toolkit

Andrea Siodmok – Policy Lab

This is the framework for Policy Lab's new Government as a System toolkit.

It’s been fascinating to watch the iterative development of Policy Lab’s synthesis of how governments get things done. It has now mutated into something bigger and more ambitious, nothing less than a toolkit for developing and managing government as a system

Its centrepiece is a grid of 56 actions, mapped by approach to power and by position in the design cycle, There’s a huge amount of thought and experience baked into it, giving the potential to be a really valuable tool for framing issues in systems thinking terms.

This is an image showing how the Double Diamond innovation process maps across the whole system of government action.

From that perspective, there may be almost equal value in a second diagram, which expands the double diamond model into a chain of gems which map to the columns of the action grid.

But it’s important to recognise what this isn’t as well as what it is. It is a toolkit which is helpful in thinking about government as a system, it is not itself a depiction of that system. The grid is not a map, as the post at one point implies; rather it is a key to system maps as yet largely undrawn. An atlas of those maps, of various scales, complexity and precision would be a thing of wonder, but it is not an atlas we yet have – or probably could ever have, bringing to mind as it does Borges’ one paragraph short story, On Exactitude in Science. That’s not to diminish the power of the key and the approach, but it does very much reinforce the point that this is a toolkit, not a solution.

It will more interesting still to see where this might go next. This version is government as a system. The direction of travel points to a view which will increasingly be more about government in a system.

Things Fall Apart

Mark O’Neill

There is an almost universal belief, no less strong for being almost as universally unspoken, that the UK political system is an exemplar of stability and moderation. There is a related belief, near universal among those most affected by it, that being a non-political civil servant is unproblematic, precisely because of those characteristics of the wider political system.

Those beliefs have been pretty resistant to evidence. Reflections on civil service ethics generate little interest. The remarkable resignation letter of a British diplomat in the USA cracked the facade, but the crack is already healing. This post takes that resignation as its starting point for a deeper examination of the fragility of civil society. It is short and pointed; alarmed but not alarmist. It sets a challenge. It is not clear where an effective response to that challenge will come from.

A Manifesto for Better Government

Adrian Brown – Centre for Public Impact

This in some ways a follow up to Adrian Brown’s previous post, but it stands firmly on its own merits doing exactly what the title suggests. It starts with three beliefs, derives seven values from them, and from that combination asserts six principles for action. There’s room for debate about whether these are precisely the right three, seven or six – and that would be a very good debate to have, while at the same time rather missing the point.

Dominant metaphors change over time – often quite a long time. For a century or more, the machine, and more recently the computer, have been the dominant metaphor for systems and organisations, and even for people. That metaphor has not been unchallenged of course – the agile manifesto, of which this is a no doubt conscious echo – can be seen as an attempt to do exactly that. This manifesto is based much more on networks and relationships and, crucially, a view of knowledge which places rich understanding at the periphery of the organisation, closest to its external signals, rather than at its heart. A system operating on those lines would be both more resilient and more responsive and there is much which is highly attractive in the manifesto.

It does not address the perennial hard question of political organisational change. It is easy – relatively – to have a vision of a better future. It is much harder to work out how to get there from here. But that should be taken not as a criticism, but as an important challenge to everybody interested in better government.

On being and doing in Government

Adrian Brown – Centre for Public Impact

What should government do? And, how should it do it? Those are two critically important questions, which fortunately get a lot of time and attention – even though it’s not hard to argue that they still don’t have good enough answers. But there is a third question which is at least as important, but which gets much less attention: what should governments be?

It is that question which is at the centre of this post. One reason why it has not had the attention it deserves is that a generation or two of public servants have been brought up not to notice it: the New Public Management paradigm that efficient delivery is pretty much all of what it’s about has become so pervasive as to be invisible. And that’s unfortunate in that it is neither value free (how could it be?) nor, as it turns out, is it a very good way of making governments work. NPM (and other strands of thought) are right that government does not exist for the benefit of people who work in it as politicians and officials. Its insights and methods have a place. But systems operated by and for humans need to have humans at their heart, and to recognise that it is the relationships and values those humans have which makes those systems work effectively – or even perhaps at all.

Civil servants civilly serve

Stefan Czerniawski – Public Strategist

A first time entry in Strategic Reading for this apparently well-established blogger, this post looks at the ethical issues civil servants and civil services should – but largely don’t – consider if the chain of democratic legitimacy for the actions of government is broken or weakened.

The post ducks the core question of whether the tipping point has been reached and indeed implies that there will be a strong, but dangerous, temptation to acknowledge it only with hindsight.

But nevertheless this is one which civil servants and others interested in the health of the political system should read and reflect on – and ask themselves whether and when they may need to act.

Time for a tactical withdrawal

Matt Jukes – Medium

The UK government design principles – last updated only a few days ago – still unambiguously assert:

10. Make things open: it makes things better

We should share what we’re doing whenever we can. With colleagues, with users, with the world. Share code, share designs, share ideas, share intentions, share failures. The more eyes there are on a service the better it gets – howlers are spotted, better alternatives are pointed out, the bar is raised.

But of course the clarity of the principle is no guarantee of the consistency of its observation – and this post argues strongly both that the principle is now less observed than in the headier times of recent years and that this is a very bad thing.

That prompts the question of whether openness is – or can be  – an independent variable, separate from the wider political context. I have argued elsewhere that it is far easier for civil servants to be open about some kinds of activity than others, and that in particular that it is easier to be open about process than about substance. So it is possible that what has changed is the balance of activity; it’s possible that overall levels of political sensitivity have gone up – but it is also possible that openness is still seen as a slightly maverick activity, and that it will tend to decline unless it is actively nurtured.

The rhetoric of openness – not just in the design principles but, for example in the availability of tools for open policy making (to say nothing of broader initiatives such as OECD’s observatory of public sector innovation) – is still alive and well. If the substance is fading, this post should be read as much as a call to arms as an acknowledgement of retreat.

We’re missing the point of digital government

Martin Stewart-Weeks and Simon Cooper – Apolitical

‘The point about the digital transformation of government,’ the authors observe, ‘is that digital transformation isn’t the point.’ That apparently trite thought both unlocks some very important questions and also forces confrontation with the fact that some of those questions are very hard – which is perhaps why they have so often been wished away. It doesn’t help that ‘digital’ is used by many as a synonym for ‘technological’, so creating near limitless opportunities for mutual confusion. This article attempts to defuse that confusion by identifying four broad drivers of change, only one of which is directly about technology. It will perhaps be a mark of progress when we can get beyond calling the result digital transformation at all.

But once past that, this is a serious and important attempt to understand how governments – both the ones we have, and the ones they might become – are responding to changes in the environment in which they operate. Government is about service design, but it is also about democracy and engagement, about visibility and legitimacy. Too many technologists don’t understand how government works; too many people in government don’t understand what technology could and should be doing for them and for the people they serve – and both groups too often fail to realise that hard boundaries between them are themselves part of the problem.

The article is a teaser for the authors’ new book, Are we there yet? (spoiler: no). Its focus is on Australia, but that shouldn’t discourage readers from elsewhere, who will see issues they recognise and will have much to gain from the understanding and insight with which they are discussed.

Government as a Platform

Richard Pope posted a series of tweets linking to all the outputs from his time as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. It’s some of the most sustained thinking and writing on digital government by somebody deeply involved in doing it there is, so since tweets sit at the curious intersection of the ephemeral and the permanent, it seemed worth bringing it all together. What follow are lightly edited versions of those tweets.

Government as a Platform Playbook

In part based on interviews with people from digital service groups around the world. Aims to provides teams building platforms in government with actionable guidance.

Government as a Platform – the hard problems

These are mostly bigger political/policy questions that need political capital to resolve.

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – The design of services & public policy

Part 3 – Shared components, APIs and the machinery of government

Part 4 – Data infrastructure and registers

Part 5 – Identity and trust

Curated lists

1. Cross-government registers, shared components and open APIs

2. Design systems and standards

3. Service standards and other technical standards (and a short article explaining the rationale)

Resources

Government as a platform reading list and various other resources

Stand-alone articles and blog posts:

The case for a design archive for digital services

The narrative around “data-sharing” in government needs resetting

Street lighting in suburban London: a parable for digital government

Digital service standards and platforms

Digital proofs

Real-time government

Platforms for government? Platforms for society?

Interview with Will Myddelton – UK Government as a Platform programme

Making public policy in the digital age

A working definition of Government as a Platform

Ten reform priorities for the new Prime Minister

GovernUp

New leaders rarely lack for advice on what their priorities should be and how they should approach them. This is a classic of its kind, well argued, well evidenced, addressing important issues – and yet  missing something important in the gap between diagnosis and prescription.

The basic premise is that a political crisis should prompt a new prime minster to embrace structural reform of government, rather than to avoid or postpone it. That is almost certainly a forlorn hope – the capacity for reform of this kind is probably most available when the apparent need is least pressing – but that shouldn’t stop us reflecting on the merits of the ideas.

Many of the specific ideas put forward are sensible and serious, though there is a tendency to see centralisation and top down control as self-evidently ways of making things better. But the overall argument is undermined by missing out two big issues, both prompted by taking more of a systems perspective to the problem, which together point to the need for a theory of change to shape understanding of how real system improvement could be achieved.

The first is prompted by Stafford Beer’s aphorism, “the purpose of a system is what it does”. Observing that some aspects of the current do not work well and identifying alternatives which look as though they might work better is relatively easy. But it’s a safe assumption that nobody intended or wanted the system to work badly – the myth of civil service obstructiveness is exactly that – so to the extent that it does, understanding why the current system is as it is, and therefore whether different approaches would deliver different outcomes is less straightforward.

The second is that the system at issue is bigger than the one presented here and in particular that it is a political system. It is often tempting but often unhelpful to think of systems as machines, rather than as organisms, perhaps doubly so in political systems. Nobody should be criticised for wanting to change and improve things, but it is essential to recognise that if you want to change the system, you have to change the system.

A working definition of Government as a Platform

Richard Pope – Platform Land

Government as a Platform is a phrase coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2011 and defined and redefined by all sorts of people, organisations and governments ever since. This post offers a whistle stop tour of about 20 definitions and descriptions before condensing them all into one:

Reorganizing the work of government around a network of shared APIs and components, open-standards and canonical datasets, so that civil servants, businesses and others can deliver radically better services to the public, more safely, efficiently and accountably.

There’s a lot of concise power in that and if the intention is to focus primarily on the platform, it works pretty well. But if the intention is to focus more on the government, it has two pretty serious drawbacks. One is that it makes the surprisingly common assumption that government is about service delivery, overlooking all the things which governments do which are not that and underplaying the place of government in a wider political system. The other is that ‘accountably’ is having to carry a very heavy weight: it is presented as ‘the equal’ of safety and efficiency, but only in relation to the provision of better services. That really matters, of course, but it is a long way from being the only thing that matters for the governments of 21st century democracies. But all that also illustrates, of course, the strength of this approach – by setting out assumptions and approaches so clearly, it becomes possible to have the debate in the right place.

Making what you do explicitly political

Alex Blandford – Medium

Technology is not politically neutral, nor can it be. So making technology choices is also making political choices – about who has power, who has agency, who gets to make choices and who has to act in a context set by choices made by others. Denying the politics of that – asserting that somehow technology is neutral or inevitable – is itself highly political. Digital is political not because there is something odd about digital, but because there is something ubiquitous about politics and political choices.

Given all that, there is a lot to be said for being explicit about it, in part because not being explicit means that some political positions – typically more technocratic ones – can be presented as neutral and beyond question when they are anything but. This post is an explicitly political post about being explicitly political, not in a partisan sense, but as a recognition that how choices are framed is a strong influence on how they get made.

Nesta Radical Futures brief

Sam Villis – OneTeamGov

A picture of a One Team Gov T-Shirt on a stage with One Team Gov bannersAfter 432 posts suggesting strategic reading, the 433rd is an odd one out, with a first suggestion for some strategic writing (or vlogging).

As a contribution to Nesta’s work on radical visions for the future of government, OneTeamGov is crowdsourcing ideas. Contributions are invited from people working in governmen, responding to one of two questions:

What does your work look like in 2030, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
Or,
In the next 10 years what would need to change for you to be able to do your best work on behalf of citizens?

It’s tempting to respond in part with Charlie Stross’s observation that

The near-future is comprised of three parts: 90% of it is just like the present, 9% is new but foreseeable developments and innovations, and 1% is utterly bizarre and unexpected.

That is perhaps a way of linking the two questions together. 2030 is to 2019 as 2019 is to 2008, and just as the bureaucrats of 2008 would not find themselves in a wholly alien world if they were to wake up in 2019, so the world of 2030 may well not be as radically different as some might wish. That brings the focus to versions of the second question – not just what would need to change, but what is the path to changing it, which would give us radically better government in 2030?

Follow the link at the top of this post to contribute your thoughts to the mix.

Making the centre hold: what works?

Tharman Shanmugaratnam – Institute for Government

Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies in the Singapore Government, gave the opening address at the Institute for Government’s tenth anniversary conference last week. The text of his speech [pdf] is at the link above, the video is below.

It’s something of a tour de force, drawing not just on Singapore’s own experience but on evidence and examples from around the world. But what is perhaps most striking is the level of integration of the policy thinking – education, housing, health and more, each seen as facets of the others, and each set in the context of broad social challenges. It is interesting both for the content and for the political and institutional context which makes the content possible. Singapore has some distinctive characteristics, of course, and not everything is or should be replicable or scalable (the management of ministerial careers through generational planning, is just one example), but the challenge of joined up government comes across as less insoluble than it is often perceived to be, with some clear examples of the gains to be had from doing so.